The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which two of our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.
A few days ago, UFC President Dana White announced his impending plans to relaunch the promotion’s schedule on May 9 after several events were indefinitely postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. On that date, he’s targeting an interim UFC lightweight championship bout between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje, with current champion Khabib Nurmagomedov waiting in the wings for the victor. But is that the right call? Alexander K. Lee and Mike Chiappetta discuss the pros and cons of the UFC’s decision.
THE SIXTH TIME IS THE CHARM
Chiappetta: Some of the sport’s observers wonder what kind of cosmic forces it will take to finally get Nurmagomedov and Ferguson together in the Octagon, or what increasingly outlandish phenomenon will keep them apart next time, but I truly wonder how there is not a Wikipedia page for perhaps the most bizarre rivalry MMA has ever seen. Seriously, you could make a riveting documentary on this escalating series of unfortunate events, and that’s even if they never actually make it to the cage against one another.
Still, just because this fight hasn’t yet happened doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried again, and immediately. It must. Not because we’ve tried and failed so many times and we need the catharsis of finally watching these two throw down, but because these are unquestionably the two best lightweights of the last half-decade, and it would be an all-time MMA disappointment if they never faced each other in the midst of their historic win streaks. Never before have two fighters on 12-fight win streaks fought, so a bout between them is as compelling as it gets.
Unlike other past issues that sidelined the proposed matchups between them, the current concern keeping them apart has nothing to do with injuries or illnesses. Both are healthy and primed. That means all we’d have to do is agree on a new date and let them get to work.
Of course, nothing is so simple at this moment in time. There are two major issues in play. First of all, Nurmagomedov is soon to begin observing Ramadan, the Muslim period of prayer, spiritual reflection, and fasting. From an athletic perspective, the last of those is the most impactful, as mixed martial arts generally demands a high-calorie diet to maximize training intensity and performance. As a devout practitioner of his religion, Nurmagomedov prefers not to take part in a rigorous camp, so his break moves a potential timeline back, but only slightly.
And that’s where the second factor comes into play. Money. The UFC’s parent company Endeavor is feeling significant financial strain in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that has shut down nearly all of its global event revenue streams. According to a recent report, Endeavor has a staggering $4.2 billion in long-term debt that has begun to choke the company, leading to a recent round of layoffs.
While the UFC is reportedly in much better financial shape than its parent company, it plans to improve its outlook by launching a series of rapid-fire events to start refilling its cash coffers, so putting championship belts on ice is not an option they’d likely consider.
To the UFC, getting a belt — or even an interim belt — in circulation is a potential drawing card on par with either Ferguson or Gaethje, so they have no issues with letting those two bang it out when they know Nurmagomedov is waiting in the wings for whoever emerges.
This is a decision based on finances ahead of competition, and therein lies the problem. Ferguson has earned a shot at the title many times over. He has climbed over and smashed through every obstacle placed in front of him, and he’s done the UFC favors en route. Remember, he’s already captured the interim title once before, back in 2017. How many times must Ferguson risk his own dream to solve the UFC’s problems?
If the UFC moved Nurmagomedov-Ferguson back to say, September, what exactly would be the harm in that? There would be no harm to fans at all. In fact, they’d be getting the matchup they truly want and have waited for. Pushing Gaethje ahead of it threatens all that. If he wins, we’ll never get to see it. Some might say that if Ferguson can’t get past Gaethje, he wouldn’t have threatened Khabib, but that is pure speculation. The only way to know for sure is to let them do the thing.
As exciting as Gaethje is, a three-fight win streak isn’t in the same ballpark as Ferguson’s run of success. In addition, Ferguson’s lengthy tenure of UFC service (16 fights over nine years) dwarfs Gaethje’s (six fights over three years), and you’d like to think that run of loyalty and extended success stands for something.
In the end, the best argument for Ferguson-Gaethje is probably that Ferguson himself seems OK with it, and while that should certainly carry weight in the conversation, we should also wonder why he’s even in this position in the first place. If the UFC was intent on doing the right thing, they wouldn’t ever ask him to take another interim title fight. Instead, they’d tell him that he’s getting what he earned, and ask him if September was a good month.
For fans, for Ferguson and for Nurmagomedov, there’s only one matchup that makes sense. Let’s book these two forces one more time.
A BIRD IN THE HAND…
Lee: We can wait as long as we want for the perfect confluence of events that will finally see Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov meet in the cage. I’m not a believer in jinxes or superstition, so in my mind this fight not only has to happen, it will happen. Book it six times, seven times, eight times, however many times it takes.
The good news is that while we — the fans and media — wait, the fighters themselves don’t have to. Ferguson and Justin Gaethje always want to fight and lucky for us that also happens to be one of the most exciting conceivable matchups in all of MMA. Through some combination of luck, timing, and probably a willingness to ignore whatever ailments he might have, Gaethje has an unblemished record of showing up for fights. Ferguson hasn’t had the same luck, but whenever he’s ready to fight, Gaethje will be there. We can’t say the same for Nurmagomedov.
This is not to blame Nurmagomedov for cancellation number five in his storied and depressing history with Ferguson. Though it inadvertently led to him being removed from their latest booking, Nurmagomedov’s recent return to Russia came with the blessing of the UFC and without any indication of where his fight with Ferguson would happen. That said, given Nurmagomedov’s stature and his strict observance of Ramadan, there are practical reasons why someone like Gaethje will always be more available than him.
So that’s why you can’t blame the UFC for moving Gaethje up in the pecking order, not that he was far from the top anyway. Six fights into his UFC career, there hasn’t been an easy fight for Gaethje and he’s delivered on the promise of excitement every single time, win or lose. Any doubts that he deserves to be a top contender have been silenced by the first-round knockouts he’s picked up in his last three outings. His wrestling pedigree has always made him an intriguing challenge for Nurmagomedov, so why not book a fight that potentially sets them up to meet later this year?
And again, this No. 1 contender’s bout is as good as it gets right now. It has Fight of the Year candidate written all over it and the matchmakers are supposed to pass up on it and sideline Gaethje for a fight that may never happen? Not only is that an unappealing prospect from a spectator standpoint, it’s bad business. Any organization would kill to promote a Ferguson-Gaethje clash and just because the UFC has the luxury of being able to draw from a deep talent pool to manufacture main events at the drop of a hat, it doesn’t mean it should pass up on a surefire smash.
If Ferguson beats Gaethje, his already untouchable legacy — title or no title — grows and one could make an argument that he’s the A-side of the matchup whenever he’s scheduled to face Nurmagomedov again. After all, 13 straight wins is more than 12, right? Not to mention the fact that adding a name like Gaethje to his hit list could put Ferguson’s resume over Nurmagomedov’s in the eyes of some critics, which would only add more fuel to their matchup’s ever-flickering fire.
Give the UFC this: It’s promising to keep lightweight moving, with or without Nurmagomedov, coronavirus be damned. That’s what the Ferguson-Gaethje fight does, more than any other matchup they could make in the division right now. It lets two of the best in the business get back to work, it gives the rest of the contenders a clearer picture of whether they should wait and campaign or find a matchup of their own, and most importantly, it gives the UFC a damn fine fight to headline a May 9 show that has the weight of the world on its shoulders.
The UFC simply cannot afford to keep Ferguson on the shelf until September, when Nurmagomedov is expected to be taking bookings again. At 36 years old with an absurd amount of combat sports mileage, the clock is ticking not just on Ferguson vs. Nurmagomedov, but on Ferguson’s fighting career in general. Waiting is not an option for him, even if it means potentially missing out on the most historically competitive MMA contest ever, or seeing it slightly diminished by a streak-stopping loss. Ferguson vs. Gaethje might not be the first option for him or the fans, but as alternatives go, you can’t do much better.
Nobody wanted to lose Ferguson vs. Nurmagomedov again, but we’ve seen it fall through our fingers five times now and lightweight life goes on. That’s how it is in MMA’s deepest division. The matchmakers have to go to the next man up and in this case, it’s Gaethje. Ferguson vs. Gaethje is one of those fights that when you see the names next to each other, you can’t wait to see what will happen when they actually face off. Thanks to the UFC accepting the reality of its situation, you won’t have to wait for much longer.
How should the UFC handle the Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson situation?
This poll is closed
The UFC should have waited to rebook Khabib-Ferguson
Ferguson vs. Gaethje is the right move